This is a story is about a poor 22 year old.
To be completely clear, I was not truly poor. I was out of cash. Still, this type of poverty was not as romantic as assumed, yet outrageously enjoyable and educational all at the same time.
As I sipped water from my cupped hands, I recognized that this was not going to be as dreamy as imagined. It was my first morning in Nantes, my debit card was useless, and sleep had not cured my appetite. Hours later, I stood at Monoprix, or the Prix, as we called it, coins sprawled on the counter. Well, it is either the soap or the wine. The notebook and baguette were necessities.
Today, my red notebook, frayed and dented, sits on my bookshelf next to diplomas and awards, as it should. It is my trophy, a symbol of the greatest (in terms of abundance of experience, friendship and awe packed into one year) of my life. It is Sunday. I read a passage:
- 5 euro – Buck Mulligans. Stupid.
- 15 euro- calling card
- 80 euro-La Baule
… total for the month 20.14
My aptly titled “Budget Remains” tells a deeper story of my twenty-second year than any other document of record. It is a record of my choices, my sacrifices, my paranoia, my values, my priorities. Beer comes up a lot.
To the depths of my being, I believed early adult poverty was a critical stage of development, and similar to puberty, it would be beautifully painful. I would reflect on these days of destitution as the “good years, when we were penniless and careless” while raising glasses of vintage Bordeaux at my second beach house.
The French and US Embassies agreed that poverty was a right of passage and they were not about to deny me. Meager earnings declared my teacher salary on the poverty line allowing for generous benefits from the socialist-leaning government. This included a rent-controlled new home in the form of a hostel/halfway house for juveniles returning from incarceration. My front door had a sticker asking, “Where my dogs at?” I was home.
I had the romantic yearnings to stamp passports, live on centimes and “find myself.” This is a common curse among my colleagues in the English Department. Poverty was an artistic right of passage and all the cool kids did it. We scoffed at the Business cohorts writing six-digit checks to their twenty-five year old selves. How selfish can you be? This was the time for catharsis while stealing toilet paper.
At twenty-two, I was not as much an adult but more a graduated teenager without supervision or structure. And like many twenty-two year olds, I still lived for Saturday nights. Scenes such as the below being the most common:
Setting: Narrow and winding cobblestone streets of Nantes at dusk
Enter 4 girls with sweat beading from their brow as they sprint in short heels towards Buck Mulligan’s Irish Pub. Each with a plastic cup of .89 euro wine in hand. Bottle in purse.
Sara: “Aaaaahh! 8 minutes until Happy Hour ends! Let’s get a move on!”
A-K: “I think I am getting better at balancing- both myself and the cup!”
These were the moments that began shaping our first year of “adulthood.” Scrounging for food, self-hating on paper due to 4.75 euro sandwich purchases (a true luxury) and picking up casual smoking ward off an appetite. I considered myself elegantly scrappy. This is coming from a girl with the nickname “Snacks.” I earned this tag due to requesting the (free!) pretzel and nut mixture every night at Bucks, as a meal. Once, we ate an abandoned kebab on the table.
In addition, I developed some interesting aversions. For example, I despised bakeries. They attacked all senses from their indecent display of croissants, pastel macarons and voluptuous éclairs. Not to mention the wafting, drool-inducing odors. I stared down girls at Zara, throwing their money at the cashier to buy things like shirts and pants. She must come from dirty money, parents must be Pro-Fracking lobbyists dripping in blood diamonds, I judged.
Poverty loved company. My group bonded over tricking the system, savoring beers bought by strangers/eventual friends, hunting down the cheapest bottle of wine in town (Champion near the Jean Jaures tram stop).
Our situation put us in the friendship foxhole. We needed each other. This was apparent to me my first day in Nantes. Due to an issue with my debit card, I was not able to use or withdraw money for a couple of weeks after I landed in Nantes. This made it difficult to eat, communicate, wash my hair, and other luxuries of these natures. Luckily, the first time I entered the cafeteria, a worker pointed out the “other Americans” sitting in the corner. Sara and I became fast friends and within 10 hours of meeting, she lent me money to buy a phone and a calling card.
When I called my mom after several days on the ground without even a one-word e-mail (“Here!”), all I could eke out was “Hi mom” before the lip quiver took over, my words jumbled and I choked on imminent tears. This scene played out in a fishbowl of a payphone booth in the center of town. This did not make me feel like I was an “adult” on any level.
Sara and I still talk about her blind generosity and my sorrowful call to my mom. During our annual get together, we fall into a language that no one can decode. Not even our spouses. They wisely choose to let us be as we escape to the private jokes, reminiscing, random references, and yes, many jokes that begin with “we were so poor that…” Sara was and still is my travel soul mate.
Because, in all honesty, we were not poor. We were resourceful.
The “Budget Remains” claimed the back of the red spiral notebook and depicts a grim life, but the front could be mistaken for John Nash’s secret journal or a clue in the DaVinci Code. Line after line reflects the travel research of dozens of options to get me across the European continent with my meager monthly remnants. And I succeeded.
Over the course of my twenty-second year I claimed over a dozen passport stamps in addition to frequent SNCF journeys across France. I was not the tourist profile many of these economies desired, as I carefully plotted meals based off of free hostel breakfasts that usually featured cold cuts (lunch!). I don’t have a single magnet or coin purse from these destinations. But I was there. I admired the motifs in ancient churches, was rubbed down by a stern Hungarian masseuse (completely naked…me, not the masseuse), guzzled champagne in the streets of Prague with Irish pub owners, aerobically danced in German nightclubs, and was stuck in a cable car suspended over Chamonix. I was starving all over the EU.
These travel plans were concocted on Sundays. Always Sundays. In France, everything shuts down on Sundays in respect of family time. However, when you live in France and don’t have family, you hanker for a good Monday.
The Walt Whitman in me decided fresh air was the cure and long walks were also fitting due to their “free” nature. On these walks, I would take in the French families playing in the park, sharing meals, and too adorable children with their Petit Bateau stripes and giant croissants in their faces.
At dusk, I would make my way back past the classic Haussmann apartments and ancient cemeteries to my hostel. I would park myself on my platform bed (wood plank plus mattress equals a platform bed, right?), have a cup of tea and spoon of peanut butter and start plotting. As a side note, I cannot eat peanut butter to this day. Yes, it is true that they do not sell peanut butter in France; therefore, every care package arrived with Costco jugs of Skippy. Did the trick. Overdid it.
I would plan my travels and save my scruples. It made the peanut butter bearable. I could hang my thoughts on my wanderlust and this was as satisfying as a new shirt at Zara. (Take that spoiled Zara bitches!) However, it would not satisfy me completely. The images of dads playing with their tots in the park would still linger and there was always more I wanted to see, wanted to do.
When I was twenty-two, I discovered my hunger. During my starving Sunday promenades, I used my imagination. I took a stab at mentally creating my ideal adult life. Because of that, I now claim an Ikea commercial-like existence where Saturday mornings feature pajama clad kids eating pancakes in a crowded bed.
Another dream was to get out of debt and financial despair. My feelings summed up in this entry from May 4th, 2005:
This time should be a refocusing time:
-I am poor
-I would rather suffer than get into more debt
-I am jumbled
-I am overwhelmed
-I am becoming neurotic
-When do you say “enough”
-This too shall pass
Last night I dreamt I had a goatee…
10 months out of the 12 that I spent in Nantes ended in single digits with a makeshift money prayer scribbled next to it. My shoes were chewed by cobblestone and my limited wardrobe had me saving for a coat until well into November. I would crave haircuts like they were bread and cheese. But it was one of the most formative years in my three decades. It built my appetite for travel. Made me realize a true yearning for partnership and motherhood.
But these were not the only plans concocted on Sundays.
This thirty-three year old may spend more of her time making peanut butter sandwiches for fussy toddlers (never licking the spoon), and she may have more than four shirts in rotation, but she will always be “Snacks.” And “Snacks” still has to make good on some promises made to a twenty-two year old in Nantes.
(Book) End Note
What is Similar to our Experience: We are both poor!
What is Different: Penniless gap year in France versus bottom of the food chain corporate America in a reviving steel city
What I learned about my brother: 22 is hard. The expectations fall far short of the reality as you enter adulthood. However, Jack is the bravest person I know, and he is selfless. He yearns for adventure and travel, but took this route to provide the foundation of stability to help launch him from a solid start. But it doesn’t mean immediate smooth sailing. I admire him.